Sunday, December 15, 2013

Cognitive opportunity costs and conflict: the case of Sri Lanka

However one views the recent history of Sri Lanka it seems like a Shakespearian tragedy on the scale of millions. The Tamil minority became so furious with its treatment by the Sinhalese majority that it turned to suicide bombing in the late 1980s, soon pioneering female suicide bombers. It then inflicted atrocity upon atrocity, including bringing down an Air Lanka flight, and later, destroying half of the Air Lanka fleet, while on the ground.

The Sinalese government and the majority of its population, despite claiming sincerity in finding a peaceful solution, were completely unable to do this. Eventually, with the help of the Chinese government, and a blind eye from most in the West, the Sri Lankan military was able to kill the Tamil Tiger leadership and for several months torture, terrify and terrorise enough Tamils for the war to temporarily end. Some people are now concerned that Sri Lanka has become a totalitarian state, but at least for the moment the suicide bombings have stopped. Though, clearly, Tamil resentment continues, more trouble appears certain, though perhaps not for a decade or more.

There are many reasons for poverty, violence and decisions which lead away from peaceful solutions. One of these is a lack of sufficient collective intelligence and foresight. Before its civil war began, Sri Lankan indicators of development were excellent for a Third World country, with a high life expectancy and high rates of literacy. Poor nutrition, a potent cause of cognitive impairment, was nowhere near as bad in Sri Lanka then as in India now. The social and health indicators among the Tamils probably weren't that much lower than the Sinhalese. Many Tamils have a culture which values learning, but the leadership of the Tamil Tigers were said to be opposed to Tamil intellectuals.

In 1956 the Sri Lankan government introduced a law declaring Sinhala as the official language. However, this provoked outrage among Tamils, in 1978 the law was rescinded. Many countries have multiple official languages, including Canada, India and Belgium. In Sri Lanka, people in government services in recent years were forced to learn both languages. The languages are not that similar; Sinhala is Indo-European, related to Sanskrit, and was probably brought to Sri Lanka over 2,000 years ago (by invaders who took power from the former inhabitants.) Tamil is a Dravidian language, with some Sanskrit influence.

Chances for each language group to practice the other tongue were limited, such when officials or health staff encountered mono-lingual speakers in their work. But chances for social exchanges in the language of the other would also seem restricted and awkward; although there are many Tamils and Sinhalese who formed friendships, where a third language — English — could provide a more neutral means of communication.

The learning of two languages (and often three, including English) by thousands of people requires a substantial national cognitive investment. It is possible, but at what cost? A recent paper in Science hypothesizes that poverty induces thoughts which lead to harmful actions, leading to deeper traps in poverty (abstract below). There are numerous complex causes for the intractable conflict in Sri Lanka (including the Tamil caste system and extremist monks); these factors extend well beyond Sinhalese language policies. However, it must be asked: did the collective mental effort of learning Tamil and Sinhalese do more harm than good?

Mani, A., Mullainathan, S., Shafir, E. & Zhao, J. 2013. Poverty Impedes Cognitive Function. Science, 341, 976-980

"The poor often behave in less capable ways, which can further perpetuate poverty. We hypothesize that poverty directly impedes cognitive function and present two studies that test this hypothesis. First, we experimentally induced thoughts about finances and found that this reduces cognitive performance among poor but not in well-off participants. Second, we examined the cognitive function of farmers over the planting cycle. We found that the same farmer shows diminished cognitive performance before harvest, when poor, as compared with after harvest, when rich. This cannot be explained by differences in time available, nutrition, or work effort. Nor can it be explained with stress: Although farmers do show more stress before harvest, that does not account for diminished cognitive performance. Instead, it appears that poverty itself reduces cognitive capacity. We suggest that this is because poverty-related concerns consume mental resources, leaving less for other tasks. These data provide a previously unexamined perspective and help explain a spectrum of behaviors among the poor. We discuss some implications for poverty policy."

Saturday, November 9, 2013

MDG 7: A spectacular failure

This is a summary of a talk I gave at the United Nations Day of Vesak conference, held near Hanoi, in May 2014. The slides can be downloaded at Slideshare. The full paper is via a link here.

Of the ten Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the seventh, which relates to environmental protection, is the most spectacular failure. Hastily conceived, and almost overlooked by Mark Malloch Brown, then administrator of the United Nation Development Programme, this Goal seeks to “ensure environmental sustainability.” One of its targets is to “integrate principles of sustainable development into country policies and programmes” and “reverse the loss of environmental resources.” While its other targets (improve water access and the lives of slum dwellers) are more on track, the failure of the main theme is extremely serious, threatening not only to worsen the lives of future slum dwellers, but to destroy civilization within a century.
As I started to write this, Typhoon Haiyan was crossing the South China Sea towards Vietnam. When it made landfall in the Philippines it was described as the fiercest storm (measured by wind speed) of all time, to reach land. A former Australian prime minister recently revealed that he had never believed in the science of climate change; even saying that the West has no right to deny economic development to the rest of the world in the name of climate change”. In reality, the West is denying development to the rest of the world through its intense addiction to fossil fuels.  This latest catastrophe in the Philippines should shift world opinion (occurring at the start of the Climate talks) but will it?  
The Philippines climate change negotiator is increasingly distraught. One year ago Hurricane Sandy flooded parts of New York City; as a result some people were stranded in high-rise apartments without electricity for weeks. Inhabitants were forced, if they were capable, to use unlit staircases to access the outer world; others relied on volunteers and relatives for food. Hurricane Sandy caused at least US$50 billion dollars in physical damage, and ranks behind Hurricane Katrina as the most expensive disaster of all time, to date.
These events are not random: they are long-predicted consequences of climate and other forms of adverse environmental change. All of these events are worsened by sea level rise, which is increasing every year. Also predicted, and also understandable, is the rise in global food prices observed since 2007. This was contributed to not only by more expensive energy, but several other extreme weather events since 2010; especially the Russian-Ukrainian heatwave and two very severe droughts in the US, worsened by extreme heat. The drought in Syria, perhaps also worsened by climate change, is an underlying factor in its brutal civil war.
Despite overwhelming evidence, including five major reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the trajectory for climate change appears to be more firmly set every year, steering grimly towards a future with ever-increasing catastrophes, perhaps generating cascades which will not only worsen poverty for billions, but threaten civilization itself. Progress towards the seventh MDG is an abject failure.

The forthcoming summary for policymakers of the IPCC working group II has been leaked. This includes a summary of the health findings (to which I made a small contribution). Its conclusions are very conservative; the conceptualisation of health effects in the IPCC currently excludes that from existing food price rises and also from conflict. In contrast, my forthcoming edited book, called "Climate Change and Human Health" (CABI, 2014) explicitly considers cumulative effects such as famine, mass migration and conflict as likely to arise in part from climate change, and as having significant health effects. Already, Typhoon Haiyan has killed over 1,000 people. But its eventual burden of disease is much larger than this, due to indirect effects such as via food insecurity, infrastructure damage, and despair.

Naomi Klein is now adding her voice to calls for civil disobedience. The need for this is increasingly obvious.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Predatory publishers in science

In mid-2013 I was invited to be founding editor in chief of a proposed new journal, about climate change and global health, by a representative of Versita. This publisher is part of the De Gruyter publishing group, self-described as one of the world's leading publishers of open access scientific content, with over 300 journals. As I was then editing a book on this topic, for CABI (published in September 2014) I at first took this proposal seriously. I asked the Versita agent to skype me, as I had questions which I thought would be easier to discuss verbally than in writing.

The first hint of trouble arose when she ignored this part of my request. After all, I reflected, she was trying to recruit me. Editors need attention to detail and diplomacy. If she didn't think skype or phone was appropriate then she should tell me, silence was inauspicious. Worse was to come. She told me by email I would receive 10% of the processing fees for accepted articles; but nothing for rejected papers. When I pointed out that this created a profound conflict of interest it was sadly clear she had no idea what I was on about (i.e. what I meant). She instead apologised that I would not be paid from the first day, but would have to wait two years!

In 2007 with several colleagues, I published a letter in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, calling for publishers to declare their conflict of interest. Even prestigious journals such as Nature and Lancet have conflicts of interest.

Predatory publishers once were limited to Vanity Press books such as poetry anthologies and some editions of Who's Who. But it is now rife within science, for example see the journalist John Bohannon's expose of open access publishers published recently in Science. Unfortunately however, Bohannon himself made several errors. He failed to include a control group (i.e. he submitted fake papers to open access journals, but not to ones that charge the reader), he deliberately deceived numerous editors, and he concocted phony African-sounding authors, thus also creating an impression of racism.

So far his paper has attracted over 200 comments; many make good points, including those above, but many completely miss the main issue that at least some open access journals have a profound conflict of interest which can easily lead to a decline in their average scientific standard. But, paying for the production, reviewing and publishing of high quality scientific papers is a problem, and has no simple answer. I think all we can do, as readers, is rely on basic scientific principles, such as consistency and scientific coherence. It would be a mistake to assume science is a cacophony even though some fields may be, such as nutrition. Scientific principles do exist, and scientific progress is being made. Open access papers are not all bad; pay-walled papers are not all good. But, in general, journals with a good reputation take more care and publish more credible papers than those with poor reputations. A few open access journals (not many yet) have a good reputation. And some fee-walled journals have poor reputations.

My favourite comment (in response to the Science paper) concerns "me too" papers. As Mohammed Khaled Tumbi wrote: as apples fall from tree due to gravitational force, so too do oranges. (I've edited Mohammed's post a little.)

Postscript: In 2015 one of Australia's leading investigative radio programmes (Background Briefing) broadcast a documentary called Predatory publishers criticised for 'unethical, unprincipled' tactics”. Perhaps the worst example is a deliberately deceptive article written by David Mazières and Eddie Kohler which contains basically the words of the title repeated over and over. This article (caution: language warning) was said to be accepted by the International Journal of Advanced Computer Technology.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Health, Environment, Population

Invited lecture to Department of Public Health and Environment, 
World Health Organization

My slides are now accessible here.

August 26, 2013
Dr Margaret Chan (W.H.O. Director General) recently criticized “Big Soda” (and other “Bigs”) as driving forces which generate non-communicable diseases. This criticism could be extended not just to Big Carbon, but big Capitalism too, and for many additional adverse health outcomes. But when it comes to the nexus between population, environment, development and health, it is not just capitalists and the Right who have a narrow vision; so too does the Left, which for at least two centuries has argued that redistribution is not only necessary but sufficient to solve poverty and resource scarcity.

This lecture will attempt to review and explain the decline of understanding and interest in Limits to Growth and population growth; the nascent but fragile revival of interest in these issues, and why these issues are central to global development, security and health: past, present and future.

This is a preliminary meeting which might lead to the establishment of a WHO- led working group to re-examine these issues; hopefully to re-consider the orthodox view which has dominated the Right since about 1980, the Left since at least 1800 and academia since about 1985.

For example: "The Population Association of America, representing US demographers and population specialists .. questioned the basis of the White House policy (at the 1984 Population Conference in Mexico City): ("the PAA prepared a statement commenting that the authors of the draft report was "either unaware of 50 years of demographic research, or deliberately ignored it" .. "Dr Sheldon Segal, the co-recipient of the 1984 UN population prize also questioned the US position.")

Finkle, J. L. & Crane, B. 1985. Ideology and politics at Mexico City: The United States at the 1984 International Conference on Population. Population and Development Review, 11, 1-28. (footnote 61).

Prof Colin Butler is funded by the Australian Research Council, as a “Future Fellow”, a four year research grant. His topic is called “Health and Sustainability: Australia in a Global Context”. He has published many articles on topics relevant to these themes, against the mainstream current, including “Overpopulation, overconsumption and economics" (Lancet, 1994) and "Human carrying capacity and human health" in PLoS Medicine (open access).

In 2009 he was named one of 100 doctors for the planet. He was lead author for the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment chapter on future human well-being in the scenarios working group, where he collaborated closely with Carlos Corvalan. He is trying to make "Limits to Growth and Health" a legitimate and central issue for global public health. He is also a contributing author to the IPCC health chapter.